QUAKE LAKE, Mont. (AP) - The sheep started down the mountain, tan bodies in a single-file line against a snow-covered slope at the southern end of the Madison Range. Another group came from the east, Quake Lake beginning at their backs, and they met at the edges of a net suspended by poles, hay on the ground beneath it.
Across from them, near a cabin, stood about 50 people who had just stopped talking. The moment was coming, and they were not to disturb it with idle chatter. They were mostly volunteers, there to help Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks gather biological data and load about 20 sheep onto a trailer that would take the animals to a release site for the second time in as many years.
This was round two of FWP’s efforts to move sheep from this population - known colloquially as the Quake Lake herd - to the Wolf Creek area, a place about 15 miles north where the department wants to restore the animal. The agency moved about 50 between the two spots last year. Many of those returned to the Quake Lake area, but biologists saw some successes. Sheep explored new areas, a few stayed near Wolf Creek and some went back and forth between there and Quake Lake.
Biologists hope sending another batch to Wolf Creek this year will boost their efforts at restoring the animal to more of its historic range. By 2020, FWP is supposed to have restored five new “viable and huntable” populations of bighorn sheep, a goal set in 2010. Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management section chief, said they “really haven’t made much progress on that.”
This Madison Range project is one way they have stepped in that direction. Other transplants have had false starts, but this one is on its second round. Julie Cunningham, the regional FWP biologist in charge of the transplant, thinks it could become a model for restoration projects around the state.
“If it works, it sure could be,” Cunningham said in an interview a few days later.
The sheep looked at the people, almost as if daring them to move first. Big rams with curled horns stood in back, younger sheep out front. Then, just a few crept slowly toward the hay. Next to the cabin, still silent, the volunteers waited for the net to drop.
Bighorn sheep were once numerous and commonplace enough that Native Americans and early explorers used them for food. But, as it did with other animals, the settlement of the West pushed them off the landscape. A 1950 estimate put their number at 1,200 in Montana, a far cry from what is presumed to have existed before.
“We had tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand plus in the prairies and mountains of Montana,” said Bob Garrott, the director of the fish and wildlife ecology and management program at Montana State University.
Garrott is doing statewide and regional research on wild sheep, and he helped with FWP’s transfer of sheep in the Madison Range. It’s far from the only work he does, but his research seeks to add insight into a species that he said isn’t well understood.
“They’re different, and we don’t know why they’re different,” Garrott said.
Low population numbers weren’t uncommon for wildlife in the first part of the 20th century. Elk and deer, too, were once hard to find. To bring those animals back, the state started regulating hunting and moving animals to places where they wanted them restored.
The difference is that now elk and deer are counted by the tens of thousands. Policy makers and landowners talk about having too many. Bighorns have remained mostly in small, isolated populations. Most of the herds are fewer than 200 animals, and it’s estimated there are about 6,000 in the state, perhaps even fewer.
“It’s better than what we started with,” Garrott said. But, he continued, considering the number that were there before the West was settled, or compared to the other animals that populate the state, “It’s far from a spectacular success.”
Disease has had a hand in keeping them down. Die-offs have happened since at least 1920 and continue today. It’s happened to herds near Gardiner, in the Tendoy Mountains and in the herd near Quake Lake. By some estimates, a series of die-offs in the winter of 2009 and 2010 killed as much as 20 percent of the state’s bighorns.
Some herds recover well after a die-off. Others struggle for years. The herd near Quake Lake was reduced to about a dozen in the late 1990s, but now is near 200, enough that the state wants to spread them out into other parts of the Madison Range. Meanwhile, a couple of mountain ranges west, a population in the Tendoy Mountains has struggled to recover from disease outbreaks, and FWP is trying to eradicate and replace the animals there.
Pneumonia is the primary culprit. Domestic sheep can carry some of the troublesome bacteria but aren’t susceptible to them. They can then transmit the disease-causing bacteria to wild sheep. Separating the two is how the state tries to manage the risk of outbreaks, meaning no new wild herds can be established near domestic flocks.
This has created conflict between wild sheep advocates and the livestock industry, a battle that has manifested with lawsuits and legislative fights in Helena.
Jim Brown, the public policy director for the Montana Woolgrowers Association, said it isn’t that ranchers want to keep bighorns from being on the landscape. Instead they fear being pushed off of it themselves.
Brown said his organization has supported a lot of FWP’s recent moves to restore the animal, but they still feel a target on their backs. He added that the industry “is being attacked almost monthly now in the papers over bighorn sheep.”
He also doubts how strong the connection between domestic sheep and wild sheep die-offs are, saying that some outbreaks have happened in places where there haven’t been sheep ranches for years. The domestic sheep industry is an easy target for conservation groups, and the issue is blown out of proportion for those groups’ financial gain, he said.
“For me, it’s unfortunate that somehow we’re being blamed for all the die-offs,” Brown said.
Kevin Hurley, the conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation, said his group wants to work with landowners and ranchers to find places to move sheep to, but studies have pointed to the connection between bighorn sheep die-offs and domestic sheep. His group also contributed to a recent report that identified risks domestic flocks pose to their wild counterparts.
“The risk is real. It’s not made up,” Hurley said.
The Wild Sheep Foundation and other wildlife groups want wider distribution of the animals, but Hurley said they know historic levels are impossible. Ranges have been developed; people are everywhere. But they think there are places where it can happen.
However, moving wild sheep to a new place isn’t as simple as picking a spot on a map, and disease risk, while it has potential to devastate, isn’t the only thing wildlife managers have to think about.
Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management section chief, said bighorns like a specific habitat, which has grass to eat and mountains and rocks to hide from predators. So wildlife managers first have to find undeveloped, intact habitat. Then they need public support and the backing of local landowners, who can sometimes be hard to please. A plan to relocate bighorns to a place near Lewis and Clark Caverns was killed in 2013 because of landowner objections.
“There’s a lot of filters that all have to be assessed before you check the green light button on a release site,” he said.
Challenging as it is, those pieces came together on the Madison, where volunteers waited as sheep crept toward the hay underneath the net.
When enough had walked underneath, the net dropped with 600 pounds of force. Sheep panicked, trying to escape. The people ran to pin them down. A couple slipped away untouched.
Volunteers restrained the animals’ legs, blindfolded them, removed each one from the net and placed it on a stretcher. They lined them up behind a trailer and the real work began.
Voices were kept to a whisper to reduce the sheep’s stress. Temperatures were taken, and sheep with high temps were cooled with clumps of snow and water splashed on their stomachs. An ultrasound machine measured each one’s body fat index, and each was weighed. Noses and throats were swabbed, blood drawn. Those samples went to a lab and were tested for a set of bacteria that can cause die-offs.
After the data were collected, the sheep were put inside the trailer and their restraints and blindfolds were removed. Another net drop and a few hours later, they were released near Wolf Creek, the same spot as last winter.
Some of the sheep wore brown collars, a sign that they had been trapped before. Those collars send signals to Julie Cunningham’s desk and let her keep tabs on the animals from Bozeman. That’s how she knows that some of the ones moved last year returned to Quake Lake and that some explored new parts of the Madison Range. It was something she was happy to look up on Tuesday.
“I just checked this morning and the sheep are all at Wolf Creek and I was like ‘Yay!’” Cunnigham said with a grin.
Behind her computer is a map of the area she covers, which stretches from the Bridger Mountains in the east on down to West Yellowstone. She looks at the map when she thinks, and on it she sees places she would like to put bighorn sheep that don’t already have them. But she knows how much time it takes.
The Madison Range project took four years “from idea to sheep on a trailer.” Those four years involved what Cunningham called “some close calls,” but were ultimately successful.
When she looks at the Madison range specifically, she sees more places where sheep could go. She could say that for a lot of mountain ranges.
There is a benefit in having multiple populations throughout a range. Disease die-offs happen in one population at a time - with multiple groups in a range, the effect would be smaller. If one takes a hit, the others are still there. The transplant from Quake Lake to Wolf Creek is a step in that direction, but is also sort of a test.
If they reach a point when sheep live there regularly and transplants can stop, it has worked. They’ve already seen some small successes in how the first batch moved throughout the range, and now they have another batch to watch.
It’s not going to change the world tomorrow, but Cunningham sees potential for a broader effect in the long run.
“Based on whether or not Wolf Creek works, that’s just in the Madison. What about all the other places in Montana?” Cunningham said.
The original story can be found on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s website: bit.ly/1Qo4cRO
Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com
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